Soccer is the per­fect cos­mopoli­tan an­ti­dote to Pres­i­dent Trump, says afi­cionado An­drés Martinez

Glob­al­iza­tion, both as an eco­nomic fact and as a mindset, is on the re­treat. Yet sports con­tinue to glob­al­ize, ex­pand­ing con­nec­tiv­ity and un­der­stand­ing across bor­ders.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Twit­ter: @an­dresDCmtz

Don­ald Trump may be the “Amer­ica First” pres­i­dent, but his youngest son is a rather worldly sports fan. Bar­ron, 12, has been spot­ted wear­ing a full Ar­se­nal kit, mak­ing him a boy of im­pec­ca­ble taste, if some­what dashed hopes. It’s been a rough cou­ple of years for the Lon­don-based soccer club in Eng­land’s Premier League, a team that prides it­self on ar­tis­ti­cally pleas­ing, if not al­ways ef­fi­cient, play.

Bar­ron is not alone. His is the first gen­er­a­tion of Amer­i­can fans to be truly con­nected to the in­ter­na­tional game, not just as play­ers but in­creas­ingly as fol­low­ers. This fall of the sports iron cur­tain, draw­ing Amer­i­can kids (and their par­ents) into a glob­al­ized sports cul­ture, is a pow­er­ful at­ti­tu­di­nal an­ti­dote to the back­lash against glob­al­iza­tion in our pol­i­tics. At a time when so many cul­tural and po­lit­i­cal forces are urg­ing us to shrink our world­view, sports are ex­pand­ing it.

For Amer­i­cans, the na­tion’s sports iso­la­tion­ism, much like our de­fi­ant re­fusal to go met­ric, has his­tor­i­cally served to strengthen Amer­i­can ex­cep­tion­al­ism. Kids ev­ery­where learn ge­og­ra­phy through sports. (It took one par­tic­u­larly con­fus­ing Cold War World Cup game, in 1974, for me to grasp the dif­fer­ence be­tween the Demo­cratic and the Fed­eral Ger­man re­publics.) But when their en­tire sports uni­verse is de­fined by do­mes­tic events, fans see far fewer dots on the map and dis­count what lies be­yond. How sadly iso­la­tion­ist to call the cham­pi­onship of a do­mes­tic league a “World Se­ries.” How de­fi­antly iso­la­tion­ist to ap­pro­pri­ate the name of the planet’s most

pop­u­lar sport for an en­tirely dif­fer­ent game that isn’t played any­where else and doesn’t in­volve your feet that much. Amer­i­cans in the past couldn’t talk sports with for­eign­ers, a parochial­ism that al­ways struck me as awk­ward for peo­ple study­ing or con­duct­ing busi­ness abroad.

Sports aren’t every­thing, of course, and there are plenty of other ways to learn about your place in the world and to con­nect with peo­ple else­where. But Amer­i­cans’ his­toric ab­sence from this im­por­tant slice of global life has been es­pe­cially jar­ring, given how much we shape other strands of pop cul­ture. The United States isn’t North Korea, after all — our na­tion pro­vides most of the world’s shared con­tent. Take kids from Nigeria, Ar­gentina, France and China, bring them to­gether, and all their shared ref­er­ences will be Amer­i­can movies, TV shows and mu­sic, and they’ll prob­a­bly talk about them in our lan­guage. Ex­cept sports.

But in con­trast to pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions, Amer­i­can kids Bar­ron’s age won’t be left out of those con­ver­sa­tions. I have a 13-year-old son, and I am as­ton­ished by how plugged-in his friends are to global sports. So many of them play soccer, and even if they don’t ob­ses­sively fol­low the Premier League or La Liga, they play the EA Sports FIFA video game and fol­low the likes of Cris­tiano Ron­aldo and Lionel Messi on In­sta­gram. They’ll watch some of the World Cup and are aware, even if they didn’t tune into the Euro­pean Cham­pi­ons League fi­nal two weeks ago, of the Liver­pool goal­keeper’s his­toric melt­down and de­bates over the per­ni­cious­ness of Real Madrid’s Ser­gio Ramos, who cyn­i­cally fouled the Egyp­tian Mo Salah, forc­ing him out of the game with an in­jury. Kids’ so­cial me­dia feeds blew up with memes about the dra­matic match.

So­cial me­dia, the wildly pop­u­lar FIFA video game, the ubiq­uity of in­ter­na­tional soccer on TV and the mar­ket­ing of large U.S. com­pa­nies all in­crease soccer’s pres­ence in main­stream cul­ture. The de­gree to which your teenager’s youth soccer is turn­ing him or her into a cit­i­zen of the world will vary ac­cord­ing to re­gion and other de­mo­graphic fac­tors (NBC Sports view­er­ship of the English Premier League still skews to­ward bi­coastal elites, for in­stance). But there’s no ques­tion that soccer’s ris­ing pop­u­lar­ity is a na­tion­wide phe­nom­e­non, and that play­ing the game and fol­low­ing it rep­re­sent a sea change in how peo­ple are con­nect­ing to place and one an­other through sports: Even ca­sual play­ers and fans are fully aware that the sport doesn’t re­volve around the United States. We all know there are bet­ter play­ers and bet­ter teams else­where; that the best a promis­ing young Amer­i­can prospect like Chris­tian Pulisic (a world-class tal­ent) can as­pire to isn’t some col­lege schol­ar­ship, as it would be in our do­mes­tic sports, but to cross the At­lantic at an early age and at­tach him­self to a club like Ger­many’s Borus­sia Dort­mund — which he did.

Amer­ica is be­com­ing a soccer power, but we are far from dom­i­nant, and this year fans must ex­pe­ri­ence the healthy heartache of the world’s most pop­u­lar sport­ing event tak­ing place with­out the United States, after our na­tional team’s sur­pris­ing fail­ure to qual­ify last fall. It’s not al­ways about us.

Think about how sub­ver­sive all this is to tra­di­tional “We’re No. 1” Amer­i­can en­ti­tle­ment or to “Amer­ica First” iso­la­tion­ism, and the his­toric sus­pi­cion of soccer in some quar­ters be­comes more un­der­stand­able. Bet­ter for Fortress Amer­ica to play its own games and pro­claim its win­ners “world cham­pi­ons,” lest we end up with a fifth col­umn of root­less cos­mopoli­tans.

But that col­umn ex­ists, and ev­ery year it grows more ro­bust — a salu­tary coun­ter­weight to so many trends pulling us in­ward and back­ward. Glob­al­iza­tion, both as an eco­nomic fact and as a mind-set, is on the re­treat ev­ery­where, rolled back by the ap­peal of nos­tal­gic, pop­ulist na­tion­al­ism. Yet sports con­tinue to ex­pand peo­ple’s con­nec­tiv­ity and un­der­stand­ing across bor­ders.

It’s hap­pen­ing ev­ery­where. In Bri­tain, too, there is a ten­sion, if not an out­right con­tra­dic­tion, be­tween the 2016 vote for a Brexit that sig­naled a na­tional re­trench­ment and the en­thu­si­asm for its ever-more-glob­al­ized Premier League, which draws all-star own­ers, coaches and play­ers from all over the world. The chants of Liver­pool fans that they will be­come Mus­lims too if their beloved Egyp­tian striker Salah scores a few more goals are a pow­er­ful an­ti­dote to the parochial­ism and xeno­pho­bia of English po­lit­i­cal dis­course.

Back on this con­ti­nent, sports be­lie the wors­en­ing of U.S.-Mex­ico re­la­tions trig­gered by Trump’s vis­ceral hos­til­ity to­ward our south­ern neigh­bor. Pro foot­ball, base­ball and bas­ket­ball teams are all plan­ning to play more games in Mex­ico and ex­pand their fan bases in that coun­try. And while NAFTA is in peril be­cause of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s an­i­mus to­ward trade, FIFA is poised on Wed­nes­day to award the 2026 World Cup to a joint United States-Mex­ico-Canada bid. Mean­while, the U.S.-Mex­ico soccer ri­valry that had grown so heated when re­la­tions be­tween the two coun­tries were friendly has be­come an arena to ex­press cross-bor­der sol­i­dar­ity: Days after Trump’s elec­tion, play­ers from both teams posed to­gether for a photo dur­ing the pre­match ri­tu­als, an un­usual move.

Ma­jor Euro­pean teams will con­tinue to tour the United States in the sum­mers, ea­ger to win over Amer­i­can fans, and more and more of them will be taken over by U.S. sports ty­coons, who are aware that soccer is the best way to take their busi­nesses global (NFL own­ers al­ready own Man­ches­ter United and Ar­se­nal). Amer­i­can brands are an­other force push­ing the glob­al­iza­tion of sports and an end to our iso­la­tion­ism. Nike, for in­stance, re­al­ized decades ago that it could hardly be the world’s lead­ing sports brand if it wasn’t a big player in the world’s lead­ing sport.

It’s un­likely that the rise of soccer and the de­cline of sports iso­la­tion­ism in this coun­try will van­quish xeno­pho­bia and Amer­i­can ex­cep­tion­al­ism in the near fu­ture. But hard as it is to quan­tify, I know it will make a big dif­fer­ence in Amer­i­cans’ world­view, es­pe­cially as this gen­er­a­tion of kids gets older.

In the mean­time, we have a “Make Amer­ica Great Again” pres­i­dent who dis­dains the rest of the world and whose big­gest sports pre­oc­cu­pa­tion is whether NFL play­ers kneel dur­ing the na­tional an­them. But I’d like to think that his son’s mind is far, far away, won­der­ing, as mine is, whether new coach Unai Emery will make Ar­se­nal great again.

An­drés Martinez, a pro­fes­sor of prac­tice at the Wal­ter Cronkite School of Jour­nal­ism and Mass Com­mu­ni­ca­tion at Ari­zona State Univer­sity, is also a fel­low at New Amer­ica. He is writ­ing a book on the glob­al­iza­tion of sports.

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